As the opening of Dubai's metro approaches, Sarah Maslin Nir considers how New York's most vibrant train route is more than just public transport: it offers a culinary world-tour, a cultural education, a musical journey and so much more. New York City is often dubbed a "melting pot", home to hundreds of cultures that cross-pollinate in its streets. But a better way to understand the metropolis is as a breathing, pulsating animal, each person a unique cell that sustains this incredible chimera. If its citizenry are the city's life-giving platelets, then its veins are the subway routes that infuse the metropolis's neighbourhoods with its people, its vitality.
The most vibrant artery is a rickety railway rising above the treetops of Gotham's unsung borough, Queens. Inside the gleaming aluminium cars of the "7 train", more than 110 languages can be heard as people from all over the world are shunted across the city. Some 400,000 people from more than 100 countries clatter along these elevated subway tracks every 24 hours. In 2000, in recognition of the unique patchwork of cultures that grows organically in the shadow of the train, the line became a sort of national monument.
Hillary Clinton, who was First Lady at the time, orchestrated the designation of the route, also called the International Express, as a "National Millennium Trail". And today, as Dubai prepares for its its first metro line for September, a tour of the neighbourhoods along the 7 train's route shows how a transit line can not only connect a city, but also transform it. It's the grit that gives the International Express its magic. Here, in several short blocks, is humanity at its most real.
The 7 train originates in Manhattan's hyper-caffeinated and glittering entertainment centre, Times Square. Heading east it dives under the East River, just grazing the toe of tiny Roosevelt Island, and climbs from the city's bowels into the streets of the always sunny (even if it's not) Sunnyside, Queens County. Built 80 years ago, the elevated train (or "el" in NYC-speak) rises on rusting girders, looming over the borough of Queens. As the train first enters the borough, past the Vernon Boulevard-Jackson Avenue stop, riders see a relic of a bygone time: a sign that says "SILVERCUP Studios".
Only the first word of the sign is original. Today, films and adverts are produced beneath this sign, but a commuter taking the line before November 1983 would have seen "SILVERCUP Bread". While this area was the epicentre of the movie world 100 years ago, food plants and warehouses took over when the film industry migrated to LA. A century later, two brothers, Stuart and Ian Suna, inherited the Long Island area bakery. They shelved the rolling pins and restored the area to it silver screen heyday: now it's again the biggest film production centre outside of Hollywood.
At the 7's second stop, Hunters Point Avenue, is a car park where the Colosseum-esque Shea Stadium used to stand. The half-century old home of the New York Mets baseball team was demolished earlier this year. The parking spaces are for the neighbouring Citi Field, the Mets' new home. To the south, a 10-minute walk from the 103rd street/Corona Plaza stop, lie the haunting remains of the 1939 World's Fair, where the 44 million visitors first saw modern marvels, such as the pencil sharpener. Now the fair's gravel paths lead to nowhere and a giant globe of curved steel latticework towers like the skeleton of a prehistoric Leviathan. Though the fair is long gone, people from the far-flung corners of the world still seem drawn to this spot. Here, near the heart of baseball, America's "national pastime", an imported sport gets feverishly underway as white-clad immigrants from Guyana, Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan face-off every Saturday for games of cricket.
Farther down the line another imported sport gets competitors heated, though the players, often septuagenarian, are a little less spry than the cricketers. But on a warm summer evening, their yelps of competition are no less vociferous. Off the 103rd Street/Corona Plaza Stop, in a remote corner of "Spaghetti Park" (William F Moore Park to the uninitiated) ancient Italian gents play bocce (similar to bowls) until it's too dark to see. They're remnants of what was once a thriving Italian community established in Corona in the 1900s.
It's fitting that the area's name has the same meaning ("crown") in both Italian and Spanish, as the Italian immigrants have been largely replaced by a new wave of immigrants from Latin America, says Jack Eichenbaum, a historian of the area who conducts tours on behalf of the city. Eichenbaum says that the bocce aficionados and a few relics are all that remains of the Italian community. One is the Lemon Ice King of Corona, the legendary sorbet shop Nicola Benfaremo opened 60 years ago, introducing the city to slushy Italian ices.
As you wander down the route of the 7 train, if you heed your five senses, you find that the neighbourhoods not only have distinct scents and flavours, but also tempos and tone. In the Latin American pockets of Corona and Jackson Heights, music thumps across Roosevelt Avenue, the road that runs parallel to the 7 train. Music has long found it's home in Corona, though of a very different sort. In 1943, the jazz legend Louis Armstrong left New Orleans for New York: his house, a few minutes from train tracks, is currently a museum to the man and the music.
Now Reggeton, the love child of reggae and Latin hip-hop, blasts from cars, shops, restaurants and even the carts doing brisk business in Mexican tamales, steamed cornmeal potties in a corn husk wrapper. To this blasting beat, street food from Argentina, Ecuador, Colombia, El Salvador, Peru and Uruguay is on offer on nearly every corner. At the cart permanently stationed under the Woodside-61 Street/Roosevelt Avenue stop, Carmen Bortillo and her mother serve up humitas, the Ecuadorean version of the tamale. The twosome churn out 500 a day - they take eight hours to cook - seven days a week, hourly sprinting from their bakery several blocks away to the stand. In winter, they're best chased with a piping cup of champurrado, hot chocolate clotted with cornmeal.
Each country represented along the route seems to have its own hot beverage. Some, the drinkers themselves admit, are unpalatable if you weren't born sipping it. At the Himalayan Yak restaurant, New York's first Tibetan restaurant, the drink is po cha, or "butter tea". The milk is replaced with a spoonful of yak butter (though the dearth of yaks mean that, regrettably, it's cow butter), and in place of sugar is salt. The manager, Jimie Dorje, drinks at least six cups a day.
Dorje, whose uncle owns the restaurant, is 25 years old. Through windows of hand-carved rosewood called aakhijhyal, imported from homes in Tibet, Dorje's entire extended family serves their national cuisine in copper cups and dishes. Eating in the traditional style - with your hands - is encouraged. The 7 train's path strings together cultural enclaves like beads on a necklace. Starting from the west in Sunnyside, pockets of Ireland, South America, South East Asia, Africa and Italy unspool. At the line's eastern terminus, Flushing, communities from every corner of East Asia fill the streets.
At night, Flushing's Chinatown throbs, wares and shopping throngs spilling out into the road. Shouts in Cantonese and Mandarin offer discounts to commuters, who scramble to buy vegetables or rare medications, such as velvet from deer antlers. Sliced and dried, it's used to make a tea said to increase blood flow. For many, it's a weekly pilgrimage from out of town to get a taste of home. On the 7 train strand, one bead seems to amalgamate several cultures into one. With Spanish and Asian roots, Filipino culture is, in a sense, the perfect hybrid between two strong communities that dot the shadows under the train. The Filipino outpost here is scarcely a block long, encompassing a few restaurants and a video store. The Phil-Am Grocery, at 70-02 Roosevelt Ave, in the Jackson Heights area is, however, a beacon for New York City's 62,000-strong Filipino community.
Immanuel "Yek" Casaillo has run the Filipino speciality store since 1976 in Queens, where more than half of the city's Filipinos live. For the thousands of people who visit him from across America, Casaillo's market serves as a link to their homeland. His store is one of the few providing speciality foods like purple cakes made of violet yam and the delicacy balut - fertilised duck eggs. Casaillo admits his westernised children won't touch the stuff, but for older or newly emigrated Filipinos, it's a hot item selling 1,000 a week.
As well as a culinary world-tour, the International Express also connects houses of worship from every continent. The back recesses of Phaya Thai, a Thai video store on 39th Ave, just off the 61st St/Woodside Station, house an unconventional Buddhist stronghold. Antique amulets depicting the Buddha gather dust in a cabinet below bejewelled portraits of the Thai royal family - but they're not for sale. These amulets are made by monks in Thai temples, and profiting from their sale is not permitted. The shop owner, JatuRong Powsutor, says they are solely available for trade with one item only: another amulet. When asked how a person obtains one in the first place, Powsutor will only give an enigmatic shrug.
Rising amid family homes a few stops further into Queens is an uncanny scene. Sand-coloured turrets encrusted with carvings of animals and many-armed Gods tower over the neighbourhood. It is Sri Maha Vallabha Ganapati Devasthănam, or "Ganesha Temple", America's first Hindu temple, imported almost entirely from India. Walking up to the temple, through rows of elephant-shaped columns is a mind-bending experience - is this really New York?
In the incense-perfumed temple chamber the disorientation only increases. In a corner, a sign reads "coconut-breaking station", and aides crack fruit for worshippers who in turn proffer bits to statues in each corner. The area is extremely religiously accepting. The roots of this open-mindedness go more than three centuries deep. In 1694, a group of Quakers built the country's first house of worship here. It still stands, and houses their prayer meetings, today.
The Flushing Quaker Meeting house, on Northern Boulevard, is a relic from America's early Dutch settlers. Surrounded by Korean shops and banks stands the shingled, rectangular building, plain and spare in keeping with the Quakers' no-frills aesthetic. It was here that the first US call for religious tolerance was penned: The Flushing Remonstrance, a document that historians say was a forebearer for the US Constitution's Bill of Rights. Following the state-approved public torture in 1657 of a young Quaker man, the area's town clerk, Edward Hart, and a group of concerned citizens, penned a letter to then-governor Peter Stuyvesant, condemning his campaign of religious intolerance in the colonies. Citing a desire to protect all creeds including "Jews, Turks and Egyptians" they called for people "not to judge least we be judged, neither to condemn least we be condemned, but rather let every man stand or fall to his own Master". They were imprisoned. Years later, after tolerance became the law of the land, the house was again ahead of its time. It was an outpost for the "underground railway", the network of safe havens that secretly transported escaped African slaves from the South to safety in the free North.
The Meeting House has been a place of worship since those days. Quakers and people of all denominations continue to carry the torch for tolerance with meetings on the first Sunday of every month. Under the vaulted beams of generations-old trees, these sessions are held in complete silence; an hour in utter quietude stills breathing and racing thoughts. But for the errant beeping of a BlackBerry, inside the still walls it might be 1694.
And then there's the train itself. These tracks that connect the worlds are, in contrast to the glittering creature it feeds, an eyesore. Towering above the neighbourhoods on rusty iron legs, the tracks are ominous. Conversations stop every several minutes when the piercing screech of the trains barrelling above drown out words. But up the flights of gnarled steps, commuters pause for a moment on the platform. When the wind gusts, or a train gallops by, it sways slightly. It's almost like feeling the city's pulse.
Catch this train, and for a moment, you're a satellite, high above a distilled version of the planet. A universe within our own.